No More Deaths: An Interview with John Fife

The Rev. John Fife is a retired Presbyterian minister, human rights advocate and a founding patriarch of the Sanctuary Movement. Between 1982-92, some 15,000 Central Americans came through his church, Southside Presbyterian Church in Tucson, Ariz., seeking safe harbor or assistance after fleeing civil war and death squads in their home countries.
His church’s action helped spawn a movement of 560 congregations that aided Central American refugees and immigrants with immediate support, moving them to safer places, in some cases Canada. By the mid-1980s, the federal government sent spies into his church to gather evidence against Fife’s efforts, and in 1986 he was convicted with seven others on alien-smuggling charges. He served a five-year probation sentence, a turn of events that never interrupted his work as Southside pastor or as activist churchman.
In a new century of immigration controversy, Fife helped start the Samaritan Patrol along the Mexico-Arizona border in 2002. It aims to relieve the suffering of migrants by offering them food and water and advocating for a more humane border policy. Samaritan Patrol is now part of a larger border-monitoring organization, No More Deaths. Fife is also an honorary board member of BorderLinks, which focuses on border education and globalization issues. He voices support for the New Sanctuary Movement, which emerged in 2006 when Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said he would instruct priests and others in his archdiocese to disregard the law if Congress makes it a crime to help illegal immigrants.
Now 68, Fife was raised in Western Pennsylvania and studied at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was inspired by Martin Luther King Jr. and took part in the civil rights movement. In 1992 he was elected moderator of the 204th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA).
He retired in 2005 after 35 years at Southside church and still lives in the Tucson area. He spoke with Reflections editor Ray Waddle in September 2008.

REFLECTIONS: Where does your work with Samaritan Patrol take you now?

FIFE: We take volunteers to the deadly critical areas along the Mexican border, about 15 miles north of there, where immigrants are running out of water and are in distress. We take the volunteers on patrol, walking the migrant trails, sometimes in 110-degree heat, putting down food and water along the trails. The migrants know we are out there. We label the jugs and date them, and later we find the empties. The migrants just hope to make it somehow by the grace of God. We’ve done helicopter medical evacuations. We find migrants along the border in every condition you can imagine – dehydration, kidney and organ damage, people whose feet have turned to hamburger after a two-days’ walk in the desert heat.

This is a humanitarian aid effort, with direct aid to the victims, but it is also a form of resistance to violations of human rights that government policy promotes. Because of militarization of the borders, migrants are now funneled into dangerous, life- threatening regions where they try to cross. It’s a kind of free market system. They risk their lives, and if they survive and find work, they stay. Or they die. Or don’t find work and go home. It’s Darwinian: only the fittest survive to work in our economy.

This is why we have to speak out and try to get border enforcement policy changed and put an end to all this suffering. We need a policy that legally documents the work force we need.

REFLECTIONS: What shapes our policies today? How has the political climate changed since the Sanctu- ary Movement of the 1980s?

FIFE: Remember, the Reagan Administration declared an amnesty in 1986. Compare that to now – the climate has shifted 180 degrees. I haven’t seen anything like this before: political leaders who talk about immigration are using bigotry and fear and hate speech in ways we haven’t seen since the 1950s in the segregated South. Back then, politicians had to “out-seg” (as in, segregation) their opponents in order to get elected. It’s that kind of thing now – a race to the bottom. On immigration, what politicians talk about – if they talk about immigration at all – is border security, more walls, more fences, more troops, more surveillance, more militarization of the borders to keep out the illegal aliens.

REFLECTIONS: During the 2008 presidential campaign neither candidate talked about it much.

FIFE: Nooneistouchingit.Whatwedonotconfront is the fact that Americans are looking at immigration primarily through fear. We view it through the lens of 9/11 and homeland security, and that’s the tragedy. We don’t see immigration as the way to meet our economic needs and serve the labor force. We don’t see the devastating effect of free trade on small and subsistence farmers in Mexico and Central America.

No one is talking about the fundamental cause of this whole issue – and that is the failure of the federal government to provide legal documental means for the work force we’ve needed to expand this U.S. economy over the last 30 years. The immigrants, including undocumented immigrants, have benefited our country. We’ve got to be able to document that. And we ought to document the undocumented workers who are here already and who are part of our communities, our churches, our schools.

REFLECTIONS: You mentioned fear.Whatmakesfeara stubborn national force? It surely predates 9/11.

F I F E : I think fear is indigenous to empires. That’s been the history of empires, and the American empire is susceptible too. We always need an enemy. Every empire needs a massive military machine and the expenditures to go with it, and those things need to be justified. A well-defined enemy helps to justify the trappings of empire. It doesn’t matter who the enemy is as long as there is one. And so we move from one fear to another, one enemy to another. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, we were in a desperate search for new enemies. What we came up with were illegal aliens and gay and lesbian folks. But they couldn’t justify the military arsenal. Then after 9/11, we were off and running.

REFLECTIONS: Do you see any stirrings for change on immigration reform? Surely not everyone is silent.

FIFE: The thing people need to understand is: there is extraordinary consensus on immigration reform among the major religious communions in North America. Look at the “Interfaith Statement in Sup- port of Comprehensive Immigration Reform.” It calls on the government to give working immigrants a chance to become legal residents and protect the borders with policies that are consistent with humanitarian values. Supporters include Christian communions, Jewish and Muslim organizations – an amazing consensus. Immigration reform is also supported by major business, labor, and Hispanic organizations. They’re all on the same page.

But there’s a problem. The problem that faith communities have is that such statements and policies face a major roadblock – the clergy person at the congregational level. Fearing division in the flock, they don’t tell their congregations about the social policy witness that is being recommended by the leadership. This was dramatized by the run-up to the war in Iraq. The leadership of nearly every Christian denomination said the war is immoral and illegal and we must not support it. But the congregations didn’t hear that.

So that’s a major challenge in our denominations and seminaries: How can we go about aiding young ministers and local priests, pastors, and rabbis so they are able to preach the faith and also help people understand what the faith requires in its social witness?

REFLECTIONS: What advice would you give a young pastor who is trying to take up this touchy issue with the congregation?

F I F E : I would tell them: pay attention to how passionate people are about this on all sides and try to understand the emotions. And the advice I have is the same as it would be for any controversy: stick with the Biblical texts and make it clear what the Biblical witness is. The whole of the Hebrew Scripture and the New Testament texts are clear and unanimous. They don’t leave a lot of wiggle room. As a rabbi friend once told me, God says only once in the Hebrew Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because God figured we could understand that one. But God says thirty-six times that you have to love the alien in your midst; remember that the Israelites were once aliens in Egypt. Love the alien as one of your own – God knew people would have trouble with that one.

Then you get to Jesus, who in Matthew 25 lays out the criteria by which we will be judged, and it includes, “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me …” And in the Letter to the Hebrews (13:2), it says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Most translations prefer stranger, but the Greek lexicon clearly suggests that the word refers to someone who is not a citizen of the country. Alien is the better word.

So, I would say to a minister: ask questions, read the texts, make the congregation look at what the texts say.

REFLECTIONS: How did you come to embrace this cause years ago?

F I F E : I was pastor in a borderlands community in Tucson. The context was clear. This was when Central American refugees were escaping the death squads, yet our government was deporting them back to those countries and back to those death squads. Personally it took some prodding from a Quaker friend before I could really see the situation. My friend reminded me of the churches’ failure to protect Jewish refugees in the 1930s, and he said we can’t let that kind of human rights failure to happen on the border in our time. I realized it meant I had to accept responsibility as a pastor to talk about the ethics of sanctuary to my congregation.

And after we declared sanctuary, I felt we needed to go to Guatemala and El Salvador to establish contacts with churches and leaders there. I spent six weeks there. I came back and told my church, “I know I’ve been your pastor 12 years, but I think I’ve just been converted to the Christian faith. Let me try to explain that as we go along.”

REFLECTIONS: For years, immigration never rose to a national level of anxiety. Then suddenly, it seems, we were told there is a crisis. Was there a pivotal moment in recent history when the nation changed its attitude toward immigration?

F I F E : There was a huge shift in the nation starting in the early 1990s. That’s when border enforcement strategy changed – more fences, more patrol agents, more enforcement technology. Politicians – Gov. Pete Wilson in California, President Clinton – decided they needed to look tough on “illegal aliens.” It’s no accident – none whatsoever – that these tougher measures were adopted at the same time NAFTA got started. So that’s one benchmark of change. The other benchmark was 9/11 and a new climate of fear and border security.

REFLECTIONS: There are always unspoken ethical and theological assumptions behind our political debates and policies. Do you see any at work in immigration?

FIFE: I think a certain image of God is feeding our politics – the god of empire, the god who blesses violence and vengeance and wealth, the god who is partial to empire. It’s easy for people to fall back on that kind of god. But if you take Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, you have the witness of the early church, the witness that says this is the God who blesses the poor, the peacemakers, their struggle – the God who does not take vengeance but who allows the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.

REFLECTIONS: What will it take to see change? Is amnesty a solution for twelve million undocumented workers? Is deportation? Is citizenship?

FIFE: We need to reframe the debate so the goal is to allow people to work legally and support their families. Americans don’t seem to realize that most migrant workers do not want to be U.S. citizens. They want a document that says they have a right to work here without fear or exploitation. There’s a University of California study that says only 20-30 percent of migrant workers put down roots and need a path to legalization. Most just want to return to their families in their home countries. But the idea that all these immigrants want to be U.S. citizens – that’s what scared the hell out of people here.

REFLECTIONS: Are there connections between the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s and the New Sanctuary Movement?

F I F E : The link is clear. When government violates human rights, the church needs to be a safe place. In the 1980s, people were fleeing death squads and massacres in Guatemala and El Salvador, and our government was refusing to acknowledge them as refugees and deporting them back to those same death squads – because those countries were al- lies of the U.S. Now the government is threatening human rights and family integrity, and parents are the disappeared from the workplace. U.S. policy is to use death in the desert as a deterrent to coming here, and that is a violation of international law and human rights. Churches ought to stand up for the right of people to work and feed their families.

REFLECTIONS: Do you ever make converts?

FIFE: One thing we learned in the Sanctuary Movement was we never got far just talking about policy. But encountering refugees personally and hearing their stories was the way to conversion. It’s the same now – seeing people at the border, understanding their situations, hearing their stories.

REFLECTIONS: What happens after this election?

FIFE: I have assurances from Democrats and Republicans that immigration will be on the agenda again. Too many people will be demanding it. Farmers and growers, hotels, and service industries are being devastated by current ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) policies and the fear that their employees will be harassed or detained or deported. So we will keep working at it. It’s impossible to quantify the number, but we have saved many people in the desert. It’s what keeps us going.

Moving the Debate Forward: An Interfaith Voice

The Interfaith Comprehensive Immigration Reform Statement began circulating in 2005. More than 150 denominational bodies have signed it. It calls on the federal government to establish “a safe and humane immigration system consistent with our values. Our diverse faith traditions teach us to welcome our brothers and sisters with love and compassion.’

It further declares:
We call for immigration reform because each day in our congregations, service programs, health-care facilities, and schools we witness the human consequences of an outmoded system. We see and hear the suffering of immigrant families who have lost loved ones to death in the desert or immigrants themselves who have experienced exploitation in the workplace or abuse at the hands of unscrupulous smugglers and others. In our view, changes to the U.S. legal immigration system would help put an end to this suffering, which offends the dignity of all human beings.
We call upon our elected officials to enact legislation that includes the following:
1. An opportunity for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens;
2. Reforms in the immigration system to reduce waiting times for separated families who currently wait many years to be reunited;
3. The creation of legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected; and
4. Border protection policies that are consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect, while allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry of terrorists and dangerous criminals, as well as pursuing the legitimate task of implementing American immigration policy.

While we support the right of the government to enforce the law and protect the national security interests of the U.S., we recognize that our existing complex and unworkable immigration system has made it nearly impossible for many immigrants – who seek to support their families or reunite with loved ones – to achieve legal status. Reforming the immigration system would allow the U.S. government to focus its enforcement efforts on real threats that face all Americans – citizens and immigrants alike.
We urge our elected officials to conduct the immigration reform debate in a civil and respectful manner, mindful not to blame immigrants for our social and economic ills or for the atrocities committed by the few who have carried out acts of terrorism.

As faith-based leaders and organizations, we call attention to the moral dimensions of public policy and pursue policies that uphold the human dignity of each person, all of whom are made in the image of God. … It is our collective prayer that the legislative process will produce a just immigration system of which our nation of immigrants can be proud.